A notably relaxed Christmas must be making my mind even flakier and easily knocked off-course than usual: when I turned on the radio and heard about crisis talks in Northern Ireland that awful, sick fear came over me as it does over anyone over a certain age: "Oh God! What now?" So when it turned out that the crisis was an acute water shortage, I started to laugh. Yes, it's clearly no joke at all for those suffering from it, but hey! not so long ago a headline like that would have heradled some new horror in what we once thought the most intractably, murderously divided society in Europe. My default fear was understandable, but unfounded.
Then I found Susannah Rickard's splendid post over on Strictly Writing, where she's thinking laterally about the Christmas story as an example of ruthlessly effective plot building. Whatever your individual beliefs it's not often that we step back and read such stories as narrative, but it's not just fun: it gets you thinking about how any story can - must - be built to keep us reading.
And today here's Saul Bellow, quoted in the TLS. From the little of him I know, Bellow tickles all my prejudices about a certain kind of writer, but oh, I do so agree with this, especially the bit I've emboldened:
Are most novels poor today? Undoubtedly. But that is like saying mutilation exists, a broken world exists. More mutilated and broken than before? That's perhaps the world's own secret. Really, things are now what they always were and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it! To identify oneself with a better past! No, no!
At last I have proper words for the angry boredom I feel as pubs, forum threads and letters-to-the-editor chunter that It's All Getting Worse, and The Barbarians are At The Gate. Such a mindset is as narrow and shallow - as self-centred, you could argue - as the one which thinks that everything's fine because the recession has brought down the price of designer labels. Pessimism or cynicism isn't necessarly cleverer, cooler or more profound than optimism, trust or wholehearted joy.
What I'm picking at, in a very laid-back, I'm-on-holiday-and-can't-be-bothered-to-forge-the-links-properly sort of way, that it's bad for me/you/one/everyone to look for, and therefore see, nothing but confirmations that our default take on the world is the only one possible. I sometimes say to students that it's a very good habit, when you're writing a story, to try turning your defaults upside down: to make the postman a woman, make the teenager friendly and helpful, make the neatly-dressed middle-aged man high on drugs. Yes, it's partly that it may make a story come over a little fresher, and if it doesn't work you can always turn them back again. It's also because following through the consequences of that simple, mechanical decision may take the story to places you'd never otherwise have gone. But, more broadly and more seriously, whether your reading of choice is Brett Easton Ellis or Barbara Cartland, Hilary Mantel or Mike Gayle, it's worth remembering that it is your choice partly because you like that author's defaults, and the chances are that they've therefore become your own. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that it's every writer's sacred Duty to Art to re-invent their writerly self from the DNA upwards with every book, and besides, there's real creative value as well as pleasure for readers in ploughing your own furrow to perfection, as Wodehouse and Heyer knew. But I do think it's important for that decision to be a conscious choice based on knowing what other possibilities exist.
I think it was Beethoven (though do tell me if it wasn't - I've a feeling it might have been a Russian) who was complimented on how in his music he brought order and harmony out of chaos. And he answered, "Yes. But the opposite is also true." So my writerly New Year's Resolution isn't about writing more or tweeting less, it isn't about reading more Great Works or more newspapers, and it isn't even about keeping up better with the endless self-employed paperwork. It's to keep checking in both my life and my writing, to see whether for any given assumption, perception or conclusion, the opposite might also be true.